True Love & Wedding Number 3: Ava Gardner & Frank Sinatra

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The Ava Gardner Museum is participating in Hometowns to Hollywood’s Wedding Bells Blogathon! This is our third and final post for the blogathon. For more posts about weddings on and off screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood, head over to Hometowns to Hollywood’s blogathon page for links to the other participants’ blogs.

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Ava met the man who would become her third husband while she was still married to her first. Years later she would meet him again and begin a love story that would ultimately last the rest of her life, even if the marriage itself didn’t.

Frank Sinatra was one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, and an Academy-award winning actor, but when he and Ava first started their relationship he was in a career slump.

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In 1949, early in their romance, Frank recorded this demo of the song “You’re My Thrill” as a tribute to Ava. The song was composed by Jay Gorney with lyrics by Sidney Clare and was released in the 1950s by Billie Holiday and Doris Day. This recording by Frank Sinatra was never released. There are 3 known copies including this one which was a part of Ava’s personal record collection. It is now in the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection and is currently on view as part of the Frank and Ava exhibit.

Frank and Ava began their relationship in 1949 while Frank was still married to his wife Nancy Sinatra, though Frank and Nancy had been on and off and estranged for some time.

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Ava was on Frank’s celebrity softball team, The Swooners, in 1947, before their relationship became romantic. Frank played second base and Ava was a bat girl.

Ava ran into Frank, who she had already met and liked, at a party and their relationship began to turn into more. She described that meeting in her autobiography, Ava: My Story: “And who should arrive at my elbow, dry martini in hand, but one of those guests. The blue eyes were inquisitive, the smile still bright and audacious, the whole face even friendly and more expressive than I remembered. Oh, God, Frank Sinatra could be the sweetest, most charming man in the world when he was in the mood.”

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When Frank and Ava’s relationship became public, Frank and Nancy Sinatra began a very lengthy and public divorce proceeding. When the divorce was finally granted in October 1951, Ava and Frank wasted no time, having been ready to wed for some time, and were officially married on November 7, 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ava was 28 years old and Frank was 35.

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For Ava’s third and final wedding she wore a mauve marquisette cocktail dress, a double strand of pearls, and pearl and diamond earrings, her “finger itching to receive the narrow platinum wedding ring that Frank and I had chosen.” She forwent the corsage this time and instead carried a clutch bouquet of camellias and miniature carnations. The wedding was attended by Ava’s sister Bappie, Frank’s parents, and several of Frank’s friends.

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After the ceremony, Ava changed into a blue traveling suit and the two hurried off for their honeymoon, trying their best to evade photographers. In the rush, Ava forgot her suitcase, meaning for the first stop of the honeymoon, in Miami, she had none of her own clothes.

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Frank and Ava’s courtship, wedding, and marriage garnered a lot of press attention, which limited their privacy, something the two struggled with during the course of their relationship.

“So I slept in Frank’s pajamas, at least the top half of them, and the next day we walked along the empty beach, me in the bottom half of my travel suit and Frank’s jacket. Naturally a photographer was lying in wait and snapped a shot of us, barefoot, holding hands. I’ve always thought it was a sad little photograph, a sad little commentary on our lives then. We were simply two young people so much in love, and the world wouldn’t leave us alone for a second. It seemed that everyone and everything was against us, and all we asked for was a bit of peace and privacy.” – Ava: My Story

They did find some of that peace when they continued on their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba, where paparazzi left them mostly alone. But peace wouldn’t last long. The two had a turbulent, passionate romance with a lot of highs and lows.

“Both Frank and I were high-strung people, possessive and jealous and liable to explode fast. When I lose my temper, honey, you can’t find it anyplace. I’ve just got to let off steam, and he’s the same way.”

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Pressure mounted from press attention, Frank’s career woes, and the criticism the two faced regarding Frank’s divorce from Nancy.

Ava was rising in fame while Sinatra was struggling, though Ava wrote that they never fought about their careers, only romantic jealousies and accusations. “It was another sort of jealousy that ate into our bones,” she said.

About a year after they married, Frank joined Ava in Africa while she shot Mogambo. He was awaiting news about what would become his comeback role in From Here to Eternity. Ava had used her influence and connections to try to help Frank get the part. She had spoken to Joan Cohn, wife of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, the movie company making the film. Through Joan she had gotten to Harry and encouraged him to offer Frank a screen test. While resistant to the idea, ultimately, he relented and Frank left Africa to screen test for the role of Maggio. He returned triumphantly with the good news that he had landed it. For a short time, the two happily celebrated the success and enjoyed their time on set in Africa.

Ava Gardner - Frank Sinatra Honeymoon cards - Equator crossing

This card issued by Scandinavian Airlines commemorates Frank’s crossing of the equator, on their first anniversary, November 7, 1952. This was likely the flight the two took together to Nairobi, Kenya when Frank accompanied Ava to Africa for the filming of Mogambo. We have both Ava’s and Frank’s matching cards in the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection.

But even as Frank’s career began to recover, Frank and Ava’s marriage was already crumbling. They announced their plans for divorce on October 29, 1953, though the divorce would not be final until 1957. However, even after the divorce the two remained close friends for the remainder of Ava’s life. She regarded him as the love of her life, “lovers forever—eternally.”

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A note from Frank Sinatra to Ava Gardner that reads: “To Lavinia, who is truly my beloved.” Addressed to her by her middle name, this note is written on book leaf and was found among Ava Gardner’s personal collection. It is now a part of the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection.

The two would reconcile a few times after their divorce, for very short reunions. Ava described in Ava: My Story one of these reunions taking place in Australia while she was there filming On the Beach in 1959.

“On a more positive note, my private life got a lift when the real Mr. Sinatra called and told me he was flying to Australia to see me. What’s six thousand miles when you’re still in love? Ostensibly Frank was coming down to give two concerts in Melbourne and two in Sydney. The truth was, we wanted to talk, to look at each other, to be together. The press were, as usual, as thick as flies on the beach, but we had our ways and means of being private. And with only two nights, we didn’t even have time to have a fight!”

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“To Frank and desert nights, Ava”

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Ava gave this watch to Frank Sinatra around 1960, years after their divorce was final. It is inscribed: “To Frank and desert nights, Ava” and possibly alludes to his home and their time together in Palm Springs. The watch is a part of the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection and is currently on view in the Frank and Ava Exhibit.

That the two always felt love for each other is no secret. Frank remarried twice but continued to stay in touch with Ava until her death. According to Ava’s sister Bappie, Frank sent Ava a huge bouquet of flowers every year on her birthday. Grabtown Girl, a biography of Ava’s life, shares Bappie’s recollection that “after the flowers faded and died, Ava left them in their special place on her dresser until a fresh bouquet arrived on the following Christmas Eve.” Frank did not attend Ava’s funeral in 1990 for concerns over a media frenzy, but he did send flowers and a simple note that read, “All my love, Francis.”

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This sprig of eucalyptus is from the large floral arrangement Frank Sinatra sent to Ava Gardner’s funeral. It was retrieved by a fan who gave it to Ava’s sister. It is now in the collection of the Ava Gardner Museum.

Love at First Sight & Wedding Number 2: Ava Gardner & Artie Shaw

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The Ava Gardner Museum is participating in Hometowns to Hollywood’s Wedding Bells Blogathon! We will be sharing blog posts about Ava’s three weddings & marriages over the next few days. For more posts about weddings on and off screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood, head over to Hometowns to Hollywood’s blogathon page for links to the other participants’ blogs.

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Ava was introduced to her second husband by a mutual friend, actress Frances Heflin. Artie Shaw had just returned from World War II and was one of the most popular musicians and bandleaders of the day. Ava had been filming small bit parts in films, but was on the cusp of her big break in The Killers (1946).

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Ava recalled in her autobiography, Ava: My Story, the first time she met Artie: “Oh, my God, I thought, what a beautiful man! Artie was handsome, bronzed, very sure of himself, and he never stopped talking…But he was full of such warmth and charm that I fell in love with him, just like that.”

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One of several Artie Shaw records in Ava’s personal record collection, now in the Ava Gardner Museum Collection. Ava was a lifelong fan of music and had grown up during the big band era.

Artie Shaw was one of jazz’s finest clarinetist, a composer, a conductor, and a bandleader. He was a genius musician and an intellectual that liked to discuss many subjects. Ava reflected on their relationship, saying, “I suppose Artie was the first intelligent, intellectual male I’d ever met, and he bowled me over.”

The two had a longer courtship than Ava had with Mickey Rooney, dating for several months before Ava moved into his Beverly Hills home in the summer of 1944. At the time, Ava was still honing her acting skills in small film parts, so she had time to travel with Artie and his band as they toured the country.

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In Ava: My Story, she said: “I adored my time with Artie before we got married. We traveled all over California and went to Chicago and New York, with Artie’s band playing one-night stands while I sat backstage, sipping bourbon, listening to the music, and having a ball.”

During their courtship, Artie was inspired by Ava to co-write and record a song he titled “The Grabtown Grapple.” The song’s title pays tribute to Ava’s birthplace, Grabtown, North Carolina. The song was recorded in January 1945 by Artie and his Gramercy Five for Victor records.

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Ava, at 22, and Artie, at 35, were married on October 17, 1945 at his Beverly Hills mansion on Bedford Drive. It was his fifth marriage and Ava’s second. Another small wedding, Ava again wore a simple blue suit with a corsage of Cattaleya orchids. Frances Heflin was her bridesmaid and one of Artie Shaw’s oldest friends was the best man. Ava and Artie honeymooned at Lake Tahoe for a week.

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The corsage of Cattaleya orchids Ava wore at her wedding to Artie Shaw. It was found pressed between the pages of one of Ava’s personal scrapbooks and is now part of the Ava Gardner Museum Collection.

Ava describes their time together in her autobiography, saying that while they had a lot of fights, they also had a lot of romance. Artie encouraged Ava to read and learn about topics from literature to chess. In an effort to please him, Ava enrolled in courses at UCLA and studied during down time on the set of The Killers.

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Ava, Artie and director Robert Siodmak on the set of The Killers.

Ultimately, Artie’s desire to make Ava into an intellectual soured their romance. Ava moved out and Artie asked for a quick Mexican divorce so he would be free to marry his sixth wife, author Kathleen Winsor. Artie and Ava were married one year and one week.

Ava’s feelings on the divorce were mixed.

“Still and all, Artie was one of the deep hurts of my life. I was so much in love with the man, I adored and worshiped him, and I don’t think he ever really understood the damage he did by putting me down all the time…Yet Artie and I remained close for years, and I can’t say anything against him. He taught me to study, to think, to read…Of my three husbands I had the most admiration for Artie. He’s impossible to live with, sometimes even to be friends with, but he is a worthwhile human being, an extraordinary man.” – Ava: My Story

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Artie’s efforts to “improve” Ava were hurtful to her, but she still credited him with sparking in her a lifelong interest in literature, art, classical music, philosophy, and politics. Photo: Ava Gardner in the library of Artie Shaw’s Bedford Drive home in 1945.

As for Artie Shaw’s thoughts on Ava, in a 1990 interview, when asked what he had found attractive about her, he simply replied, ““Have you ever seen Ava Gardner?”

 

Young Love & Wedding Number 1: Ava Gardner & Mickey Rooney

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The Ava Gardner Museum is participating in Hometowns to Hollywood’s Wedding Bells Blogathon! We will be sharing blog posts about Ava’s three weddings & marriages over the next few days. For more posts about weddings on and off screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood, head over to Hometowns to Hollywood’s blogathon page for links to the other participants’ blogs.

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Ava and Mickey Rooney kissing wedding day

On her second day in Hollywood in 1941, Ava Gardner met a man dressed like Carmen Miranda. Just 5 months later they would be married.

Mickey Rooney was filming Babes on Broadway (1941) when Ava toured Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Studios for the first time, just after arriving in Hollywood from North Carolina. He introduced himself and even in Carmen Miranda costume and makeup, Ava was flattered. One of the biggest names of the day, Mickey Rooney was charismatic and persistent. After playing hard to get for a while, Ava agreed to a date and it wasn’t long until the two decided to marry.

At the time, Ava Gardner was still far from famous, having just arrived in Hollywood, but Mickey Rooney was a hugely popular star with a long list of accolades already. Having started in silent films in 1927 at the age of seven, Mickey had been in the spotlight for over a decade when he met Ava. He had received a special Academy Juvenile Award for his performance in Boys Town (1938) opposite Spencer Tracy and was the first teenager nominated for an Oscar for his leading role in Babes in Arms (1939). He was the lead in one of the most successful and longest running film franchises, the Andy Hardy series, and was the top box-office star for three years, 1939-1941.

Since both Mickey and Ava were under contract with MGM, they had to have the permission of studio head Louis B. Mayer in order to marry. Mayer was worried about how fans would react if one of his biggest stars, Mickey Rooney, who was especially popular in the Andy Hardy movies, was taken off the market.

“Metro owned both of us, and did not look kindly on any change in Andy Hardy’s status,” is how Ava put it in her autobiography, Ava: My Story. Ultimately Mayer agreed but set some limitations—MGM wanted a quiet, unpublicized ceremony.

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Ava and Mickey on their wedding day.

Ava and Mickey were married in a small white church in Ballard, California on January 10, 1942. Ava wore a blue tailored suit with a corsage of Cattaleya orchids rather than a white wedding gown. She said of agreeing to the small wedding: “it ruined my dream of getting married at a beautiful ceremony dressed in a white wedding gown. I didn’t mind missing out on the big wedding, but I did miss the dress.”

The only guests present for the small wedding were Ava’s sister Bappie, Mickey’s parents, and Les Petersen, Mickey’s personal publicist.

Of the ceremony, Ava said in her autobiography: “Mickey fumbled with the wedding ring, inscribed “Love Forever,” which was probably some kind of portent, given that he racked up eight marriages altogether and I managed another two. No one shed any tears.” Mickey and Ava honeymooned at the Del Monte Hotel near Carmel on the Monterey Peninsula.

Young Ava with Mickey Rooney

This publicity still, taken shortly after Mickey and Ava married, was used to share the news about their union. The caption read: “Ballard, CA: Mickey Rooney, and his bride, Actress Ava Gardner are shown as they posed for cameramen after they were married in the Santa Ynez Valley Presbyterian Church. There were few persons present at the ceremony.” Several publicity photo shoots were done, including one with Ava and Mickey golfing together. These photos were distributed to magazines and other publications, much like stars’ relationships make the news today.

Just after their honeymoon, Ava accompanied Mickey on a war bond tour which included stops in Boston, New York, Fort Bragg, and Washington D.C. The new Mrs. Mickey Rooney was still in the very early stages of her career, so it was Mickey who was the star everywhere they went, including when they visited Ava’s family while in North Carolina.

Mickey Rooney United War Certificate

This Service Citation was issued to Mickey Rooney by the Greater Boston United War Fund. It reads in part: “You and your gracious bride made your honeymoon a historic event in old Boston, when you came three thousand miles to send our first great civic wartime effort off to a sky-rocket start.” From the Ava Gardner Museum Collection.

“Mama had made herself pretty. She’d got herself dressed to the nines to meet her famous son-in-law…and the house was filled, which couldn’t have made Mama happier because she loved people around her. And Mickey liked that sort of situation, too, and in my terms gave the greatest and most heartwarming performance of his life. He entertained Mama, he hugged her, he made her laugh, he brought tears to her eyes. He did his impersonations, he did his songs and dances –it was a wonderful, wonderful occasion for Mama, who we all knew was slowly dying. Although I had loved Mickey from the start, that show he put on moved me beyond words.” – Ava: My Story

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A serving platter belonging to Ava’s mother, which was used when Mickey Rooney visited in 1942. The platter is now in the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection.

Doris Cannon, one of Ava’s biographers, wrote in Grabtown Girl: “Many years later, Ava would say that she loved Mickey when she married him—and she loved him even when she ended their brief union. But she never loved him more than on that day in Raleigh when he made her mother so happy.”

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This photo of Ava’s mother during Mickey’s visit in North Carolina captures the joy of the occasion, and the serving platter used to offer Mickey some southern fried chicken. That platter is now in the Ava Gardner Museum Collection.

Ava Gardner was only 19 when she married Mickey Rooney, 21, and only 20 when they divorced. Ava said of the marriage, which quickly started falling apart, that “neither Mickey or I had so much as a clue as to what [marriage] really meant.”

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“We were babies, just children, and our lives were run by a lot of other people. We hadn’t had a chance.” The divorce was final on May 21, 1943, the same day Ava’s mother passed away.

The two remained friendly throughout Ava’s life. In April 2001, while on tour, Mickey Rooney even visited the Ava Gardner Museum with his then wife Jan Chamberlin Rooney. He also contributed interviews about Ava to the film that the Museum shows to visitors as part of the tour.

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Mickey and his then wife signed the Ava Gardner Museum guestbook when they visited in April 2001.

In the museum’s orientation film, Mickey recalled how he felt when he first met Ava: “My heart was gone when I saw her.”

“Being married to Ava Gardner was one of the most memorable moments of my life. And I wish her well wherever she is,” Mickey reflected in the film.

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Mickey Rooney and his last wife Jan during their visit to the Ava Gardner Museum.

Ava’s North Carolina During the “Roaring Twenties”

The “Roaring Twenties,” also known as the Jazz Age is known for economic prosperity, social progressiveness, parties, flappers, and excess. Prohibition and “The Great Gatsby” come to many people’s minds. Speakeasies and bootleggers. Short skirts, bobbed hair and women smoking cigarettes. Art Deco and Jazz music. Industrial growth and new inventions. The spread of the automobile, electricity, and the telephone. Women’s right to vote.

However, many of these changes took place primarily in big cities. Urban areas experienced most of these changes and the majority of the economic prosperity. For rural communities, new technologies and the new industries that fueled economic development in the cities were slow to arrive. Rural areas still depended greatly on farming, which hit an economic recession well before the Great Depression struck the rest of the country in 1929.

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Baby Ava, c. 1923. Ava was born Christmas Eve 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina, a small rural community.

For Ava Gardner, who was born in 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina, there were no “Roaring Twenties.” For rural North Carolinians like Ava’s family, the images of the 1920s that come to mind were instead seen as signs of the deterioration of traditional values and the increasing differences between urban and rural America. 75% of the North Carolina population was rural in the 1920s, meaning only a small minority of urban North Carolinians experienced the Jazz Age as depicted in popular media.

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Ava Gardner’s personal childhood Bible. While urban centers saw flappers, illegal speakeasies, and women in short skirts and short hairstyles, many in rural areas considered these changes in cities to be against traditional values. Image: Holy Bible, c. late 1920s/early 1930s, in the collection of the Ava Gardner Museum.

Farmers experienced hard times well before the Depression hit, meaning rural areas never experienced the economic prosperity so often thought of during the 1920s. One of the difficulties facing farmers in the 1920s was the infestation of the boll weevil, which ruined one of farmers’ most profitable crops, cotton. Tenant farming increased throughout the decade, meaning farmers were losing their land. This happened to Ava’s father, Jonas Gardner. Jonas had purchased land with his brothers, but after several bad seasons, including the destruction of their cotton crop by the boll weevil, they could not afford to pay their debt on the land and lost it.

“For a time, Jonas continued to farm as a tenant on land that had been his. Later, he worked at the cotton gin in Grabtown and operated a sawmill and a small store near the two-story house that he managed to keep.”

– From Grabtown Girl by Doris Rollins Cannon

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Ava’s aunt, mother, father and three of her older sisters before she came along to join the family. Photo circa 1910s.

Ava said of her father in her autobiography:

 “On one level, there wasn’t much to separate Daddy from the other farmers in Johnston County, North Carolina. He wore overalls hitched up over a plaid woolen shirt, with a short chunky jacket added if the season demanded it…Daddy sharecropped. He farmed the land, and the deal he made was the traditional half and half. The landlord provided seed and fertilizer and they shared the profits, when there were any.”

Electricity and plumbing expanded across the state, but took longest to reach rural areas. These luxuries did not fully reach rural Johnston County until the 1940s. Likewise, the flapper image did not describe most rural women, though style trends were influenced by it. Only wealthy women who had free time could participate in the complete flapper lifestyle.

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Ava, age 4, 1927.

National Prohibition, which came into effect on January 17, 1920 did not have much of an effect on North Carolina which had already enacted its own state-wide prohibition in January 1909. Johnston County, where Ava lived as a child, had actually led the opposition to state prohibition, earning itself the distinction of “Banner Whiskey County” in 1908. Johnston County has a long history with alcohol, moonshine, and bootlegging. As recently as 2016 the county itself was dry, while various towns within it allowed alcohol sales.

The one popular 1920s image that applies wholeheartedly to rural North Carolina though is that of bootleggers, but owing to North Carolina’s early enaction of Prohibition, these bootleggers had been running for 10 years already, procuring alcohol from Virginia or South Carolina and bringing it back into the state. It is North Carolina’s bootlegging history that gave rise to NASCAR, owing to bootleggers who worked to make their cars run faster, better to outrun the police in. National Prohibition did increase North Carolina moonshiners’ business, since alcohol was not so easily procured at the state borders.

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Ava visited North Carolina in 1949 and stopped by the house she was born in.

The Roaring Twenties came to a crashing halt on October 29, 1929 when stock prices on Wall Street plummeted. The crash contributed to a worldwide depression. Prohibition officially ended in December 1933 and gone were the days of speakeasies and flappers, of prosperity and excess. Though for many in Ava’s North Carolina, they had never really existed.

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One of the ways Ava’s parents made ends meet was by moving to and working at the Brogden Teacherage in the late 1920s. Ava’s mother cooked for the teachers that boarded there, and her father cared for the property. The Brogden school and teacherage closed in 1935 because of economic constraints caused by the Great Depression.